When I was in college, a hundred years ago, my plan was to get a regular elementary teaching degree and endorsements in what was referred to back then as M.I. (mentally impaired) and E.I. (emotionally impaired).
Everything went swimmingly until it came time for E.I. student teaching. I was assigned to a middle-school class of seven boys with emotional disabilities. Every day was a struggle. I would go home exhausted and in tears. Emotional problems seemed so complex and depressing to me.
About three weeks into the semester, I reached the breaking point when one of the boys went home and committed suicide. I quit and never completed my student teaching for the E.I. endorsement. I decided there was a special place in heaven for those wonderful folks who worked with students with emotional impairments—and I just wasn’t one of them.
Flash forward to the present and I find myself with two students with emotional impairments. One young man is untreated but shows all the signs of bipolar disorder. The other day he came to school saying he wanted to just end the pain. When I asked where the pain was, he pointed to his heart. He said he was not afraid of death. I immediately alerted the administration and his homeroom teacher.
I went home and read up on suicide in young adults. I learned that asking them if they are thinking of killing themselves is actually a helpful thing to do; often people falsely believe it will only encourage them. The next day this student’s mood was depressed again and so I told him I was worried about him and asked if he had thought of killing himself. He answered in the negative. I told him I was glad to hear that. Of course, I will continue to keep a close eye on him.
I think my age and experience helped me react very differently this time around. Instead of running away, I hit the problem head-on. I did my research because information is so powerful. I never want to find out that I did not do everything I could to prevent a student from taking his own life.
I also know that I cannot “fix” this student. I took the initiative by informing others in the system but accept that I cannot control what they do with the information. In this case, the administrator chose to minimize it while the homeroom teacher chose to take it seriously. The parent has been given information on where to go for free mental health services but has chosen not to pursue it.
I thought a lot about this student, took the actions I could, prayed for him, and then . . . I let it go. Letting it go does not mean giving up. Letting it go after doing what I could allows me to keep working with this student. That is the difference between Kathy at 21 years of age and Kathy at 51 years of age.